Czeslaw Milosz – A Tribute – Part Two – A Poem to Honour the Men and Women in Ukraine in Wartime, February 2022

Ukraine in Wartime, February 2022. Photo Credit: State Border Guard Services/ Reuters

Here is the great paradox of poetry and of the imaginative arts in general. Faced with the brutality of the historical onslaught, they are practically useless. Yet they verify our singularity, they strike and stake out the ore of self which lies at the base of every individuated life. In one sense the efficacy of poetry is nil – no lyric has ever stopped a tank. In another sense it is unlimited. It is like writing in the sand in the face of which accusers and accused are left speechless and renewed.

 Seamus Heaney from Government of the Tongue in Finders Keepers, Faber and Faber Limited, 2002

from Six Lectures in Verse (Berkeley 1985)

 Lecture IV

Reality, what can we do with it? Where is it in words?
Just as it flickers, it vanishes. Innumerable lives
Unremembered. Cities on maps only,
Without the face in the window, on the first floor, by the market,
Without those two in the bushes near the gas plant.
Returning seasons, mountain snows, oceans,
And the blue ball of the earth rotates,
But silent are they who ran through artillery fire,
Who clung to a lump of clay for protection,
And those deported from their homes at dawn
And those who have crawled out from under a pile of bodies,
While here, I am an instructor in forgetting,
Teach that pain passes (for it’s the pain of others),
Still in my mind trying to save Miss Jadwiga,
A little hunchback, librarian by profession,
Who perished in the shelter of an apartment house
That was considered safe but toppled down
And no one was able to dig through the slabs of wall,
Though knocking and voices were heard for many days.
So a name is lost for ages, forever,
No one will ever know about her last hours,
Time carries her in layers of the Pliocene.
The true enemy of man is generalization.
The true enemy of man, so-called History,
Attracts and terrifies with its plural number.
Don’t believe it. Cunning and treacherous,
History is not, as Marx told us, anti-nature,
And if a goddess, a goddess of blind fate.
The little skeleton of Miss Jadwiga, the spot
Where her heart was pulsating. this only
I set against necessity, law, theory.

Czeslaw Milosz from New Poems 1985-1987 from New and Collected Poems (1931-2001), Ecco, 2003

In the face of human reality, which includes wars and violence, what can poetry do? And should it even bother? Poets have been asking these questions for countless years. And in light of the unprovoked invasion of Ukraine by Russia a few days ago these questions are vitally topical and important. These words by the Irish poet Seamus Heaney quoted above give a powerful answer:

Here is the great paradox of poetry and of the imaginative arts in general. Faced with the brutality of the historical onslaught, they are practically useless. Yet they verify our singularity, they strike and stake out the ore of self which lies at the base of every individuated life.

Here are some other words that say poetry matters by the American poet Jack Gilbert from his poem: The Lost Hotels of Paris:

Ginsberg came into my house one afternoon
and said he was giving up poetry
because it told lies, that language distorts.
I agreed, but asked what we have
that gets its right even that much.

In Milosz’s extraordinary poem, part of the epigraph to the post above, written in the 1980’s, the Nobel Prize Laureate  gives a striking answer: remember and give specifics. Defy generalizations. No mention of war in his poem but lots of specifics  of war and, in particular, one of war’s victims so poignantly referenced and described and celebrated: Miss Jadwiga.

The little skeleton of Miss Jadwiga, the spot
Where her heart was pulsating. this only
I set against necessity, law, theory.

One heart against these abstractions: necessity, law, theory. I am inspired by how Milsoz, who witnessed the Nazi invasion of Poland and the ensuing brutal occupation, is so clear about how words, however fleeting, matter. Just as I am by Heaney’s words in the epigraph for this post.

But, and this is something you can see again and again in Milosz’s poems: now, see, how he contradicts himself. In this way, how he holds the tension of opposites. leaving it, perhaps, for us, to make our own decisions. See how the lines from his poem Dedication written in Warsaw in 1945 are so different from his words at the end of Lecture IV written forty years later.

What is poetry which does not save
Nations or people?
A connivance with official lies,
A song of drunkards whose throats will be cut in a moment,
Readings for sophomore girls.

 But even in this poem, a sense of contradiction. Right after this stanza he admits:

That I wanted good poetry without knowing it.
That I discovered, late, its salutary aim,
In this and only this I find salvation.

Milosz could not save many of his poet-peers who died in Warsaw but already early in Dedication we are given the particulars in this poem, a white fog, a broken city, an immense bridge and in these details we see Milosz trying to ground the reality of war in some meaningful way. I would say this poem makes a difference and I would say Lecture IV goes even further. To echo Heaney it verifies the singularity of Miss Jadwiga.

I hear Milosz so clearly: take all the abstractions and war-related jargon and throw it away. So I did that a few minutes ago and searched for personal stories of Ukrainian resistance to the Russian invasion yesterday. I was looking for a name! There was the dramatic story of a Ukranian woman defying a Russian soldier and putting sunflower seeds in his pocket so they would grow after he killed in the conflict. But no name.

Then, I came across this report about this Ukrainian soldier: Vitaly Skakun sacrificed his life to blow up the Henichesky Bridge near Kyiv, in an attempt to block the passage of Russian soldiers. Such powerlessness when we are faced with brutal exercise of power in war. But we can try and make reality real.  This now, a start. A young man, no time before the enemy soldiers advanced, to set his charges on the bridge and flee. So, he discharged them on the spot and died.

A poem or a blog post won’t save a life, couldn’t save Vitaly Skakun’s life. But I can speak the reality of his death.  That I have the power to do, if nothing else.  And that is the power I must exercise as a poet. And maybe, hope against hope, one day enough poems will stop a tyrant from waging war. Giving a name to the stopped heart of one who died in a war.

I am grateful to Robert Hass who highlighted Lecture IV yesterday in his last session of his marvelous six-session series, sponsored by the California-based Community of Writers, on the poetry on Milosz. So many of us participating in that session recognized how timely this poem was for the horrific events occurring in Ukraine as we met.

And then yesterday, the issue of poetry as witness, especially to war and violence, came up again specifically in a on-line poetry series led by the poet and poetry commentator, Pádraig Ó Tuama Padraig has been leading hourly sessions each week since February 4th in a series, sponsored by the Columbia University Climate School, called: Poetry Lab: Exploring Conflict Intelligence through the Lens of a Poem. Today’s session, so timely in light of the invasion of Ukraine yesterday, focused on three poems about conflict and war.

What remarkable poems Padraig chose. The first was: We were Happy During the War; a poem I featured in this post by the Ukrainian American poet Ilya Kaminsky, The second was Hayden Carruth’s sobering reflection on the futility of writing against war, On Being Asked to Write a Poem Against the War in Vietnam. The third was Wild Flowers, a heart-stopping reflection on a massacre of indigenous children by the indigenous Australian poet Ali Cobby Eckerman. All of these can be found on-line.

I won’t say more about these poems except to add that Padraig with the Climate School will be producing a book based on his reflections in this series using poems as a lens to view conflict and its witness. Instead, I will say my yes to poetry as witness no matter how distanced I may be now from war or how powerless I feel. And I will share a poem I began yesterday. Not a finished poem but a personal postscript to be continued.


What wars are. Their bombs and bullets. Blood
interrupted and how bodies die in it. The blood.
While others, their blood moving, uninterrupted,
march up. The soldiers, men, most likely, standing
still now at the other side of the bridge blown-up
by Vitaly Skakun, February 25th, in Ukraine. The bridge
named Henichesky, near Kyiv. And Vitaly, no time
to flee, blown up with it. Bone, blood and steel, these
uneasy neighbours again, joined by mayhem, again.
And my uncle Billie, joined now in my memory
to Vitaly as I, no instructor to forgetting, remember
how Billie died the same way on a bridge. A bridge
I have no name for in Alor Star, Malaya in 1941. Billie,
like Vitaly, setting charges on a bridge as the enemy
advanced, Japanese on bicycles, and Billie, dying
there, too. This marriage of iron in blood and a bridge.

Duncan, Vancouver Island, February 26th, 2022

Richard Osler


  1. Posted February 27, 2022 at 11:09 am | Permalink

    very interesting. will require much contemplation. I appreciate poetry and its influence and power. Will save this for further stludy. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Richard Osler
    Posted March 18, 2022 at 6:38 pm | Permalink

    Dear Dorothy Grateful to readers like you! Blessing on your further poetic journey!

  3. Posted February 28, 2022 at 4:50 am | Permalink

    Powerful, Richard, each poem a hammer stroke, the sound of a mind being broken open, the mind as stone.

  4. Richard Osler
    Posted March 18, 2022 at 6:36 pm | Permalink

    Thanks, Heidi!

  5. David Goldstein
    Posted March 2, 2022 at 6:29 am | Permalink

    I’m not sure that Milosz is contradicting himself. Elsewhere (in ‘A Treatise on Poetry’) he distinguishes between ‘good poetry’ and poetry which is ‘a connivance with official lies’. In his author’s notes he writes ‘A poet should not be the prisoner of national myths. … [A] mental act, securing a grasp on reality, precede[s] the poetic act, if the peom, however noble its intention, [is] not to be mere words.’

    Thank you for highlighting Milosz and other writing relevant to the current situation.

  6. Richard Osler
    Posted March 18, 2022 at 6:37 pm | Permalink

    Dear David: My reference qwas more to the fact that in quite a few of Milosz’s poems he does contradict himself. In the same poem! But thank you so much for your thoughtful response to my blog! Grateful for those who take the time to read my blog posts!

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